If you’ve ever dreamed of a farm in Africa and, better still, one that allowed you plenty of leisure, family time and long cups of coffee on the stoep, think no further than Nguni cattle. But, should you ever consider such a farming life, be aware that you might just develop the Golden Eye. That’s the look on your face as you sit in the twilight, admiring the sunset light falling on the speckled patterns of your graceful beasts.
The Golden Eye
Nguni farmers all over Africa have been gazing in wonder at their livestock for centuries now. Kevin Watermeyer of Zuurplaats farm outside Nieu-Bethesda made the switch from sheep to these hardy beasts in 1997 and farming with Ngunis has been a revelation to him, a fifth-generation Karoo farmer.
“Our cattle are raised on the veld. There’s no dipping, no kraaling, no steroids, no hormones, no hassling about predators, no feedlots. In fact, the only input costs are eartags and natural rock-salt licks.
“We’ve used no chemicals on the cattle whatsoever since 1991 and ever since we’ve had Ngunis I haven’t stuck a needle into one. It’s good for the environment and, quite honestly, it’s good for the bottom line.
“I spoke to a farmer in the Port Alfred district recently and he told me they were dipping their cattle of another breed at least once a week. That’s got to be having some bad effects. It causes chaos with nature, with dung beetles, with birds and so on. What are the costs going to be for the next generation? I don’t think we have the vaguest idea.”
Zuurplaats has a lovely old farmhouse, all wooden floors, high ceilings and sash windows. And, yes, it comes with a wide inviting stoep. Inside, Kevin’s wife Lisa brings in tea and delicious buttered banana bread. Lisa was one of the founders of Karoo Moon culinary products but recently decided to spend more time with their children, Peter (8) and Hannah (6).
Peter is already a mad-keen farmer. He and his friend Zabian Jansen run a flock of speckled Venda chickens, a few sheep and Lisa’s Zulu Mbuze goats. They call themselves the ‘Supergroup’, and they were recently gratified to welcome their first investor – Peter’s grandfather. Share and ownership issues are currently being thrashed out.
The painted herd
On their neighbouring farm, Grootklip, we find one of their Nguni herds. The cattle move lightly downhill like a multi-coloured stream, white as milk, black as ink, red-speckled as sugarbeans, confident as lions. Having evolved alongside humans for at least 8 000 years Ngunis are tractable beasts and move on easily with shouts of encouragement from the only labourers on the farm, Izak Olifant and young Henry ‘Mana’ Davids.
Kevin points to the veld. “There wasn’t this grass cover here eight years ago and as a result the rain isn’t running off so fast. It penetrates, and the groundwater is higher. But everything moves slowly here. The Karoo doesn’t want you to hurry. You must celebrate every day for what it is.”
To Kevin, the drought-hardy, disease-resistant Nguni is the ideal animal for the Karoo. “A sheep will take a plant right down to its roots whereas cattle, with their broader mouths, always leave something. There’s still enough to capture sunlight.”
Most of the cows have daunting, sickle-moon horns, their defence against predators. Even the legendary super-jackals would surely think twice before tackling such a well-armed mother.
There are plenty of calves – and that’s the main advantage of owning Ngunis. They are far more fertile than any other breed. And because they haven’t been bred to have unnaturally large rumps, they give birth quickly and easily.
There are several proud-looking bulls in the herd. Like many Nguni cattle farmers Kevin allows multi-sires, believing that nature and cows are the best judges if you’re breeding for hardiness and fertility.
So now we move onto the real nitty-gritty, the reason why some cattle farmers look down on Ngunis and their relatively light weights. “Why don’t you just fax your cattle to the abattoir?” they taunt.
Kevin turns the question around: “Why do we measure crops by tons yield per hectare yet weaners by individual weight? It makes more sense to measure beef production per hectare too. Our Compassberg Ngunis are 10% more reproductive than the national average.”
This is the reason indigenous breeds are the fastest-growing of all at the moment, says Kevin. It’s why Nguni cattle are now the second-largest registered herd in the country (65 000 of them versus 95 000 registered Bonsmara). And their smaller carcasses are perfect for rural abattoirs.
Compassberg Nguni meat far exceeds the standards for organic, he says. “Plus, it’s very fine meat, completely healthy and low in fat.”
It’s just history
On Bloemhof game farm north of Graaff-Reinet, Julian Murray is slowly getting rid of his sheep and bringing in Ngunis instead. He finds they make more sense because they aren’t readily picked off by the predators that find sheep such an easy target. “What we need here is a light-framed animal that can look after itself in rough country,” he says.
The perk is that when grazing conditions get tough, they can move the Ngunis far more easily than they can move wild game on the farm.
And just in case there are any last doubts about the suitability of Ngunis in the Karoo, historians have found references to Sanga cattle (the ancestors of Ngunis) being farmed in this region as far back as the 1750s.
“They belonged to Khoikhoi farmers and apparently explorer Friedrich Beutler said they owned tens of thousands of them,” said Kevin, with a slight note of envy.
This story was first published in 2010. Since then Nguni cattle farming has taken hold in the Karoo with a number of farmers now raising the animals fr the local meat market.